Confucianism and Homosexuality in Vietnam- 儒学与同性恋在越南

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Vietnam LGBT

Vietnam represents a mixed picture for many outsiders. Its communist policies and imperial background have been combined with quasi-capitalist elements like the open market, and these differences can be seen throughout Vietnamese society. For example, it is not uncommon to find a marketer selling goods under a communist propaganda poster behind which a French-inspired café serves European coffee. Much of this variety was inspired by years of colonization as well as Đổi Mới (pronounced “doy moy”), the major economic transformation that took place in 1985-86 and officially marked the end of the ban on private commerce after the reunification of northern and southern Vietnam in 1975. Removing barriers on exports and imports and allowing foreign businesses to come in and invest in the country meant that the country was able to reach an average growth rate of 7.5 percent in the 1990s (IMF, 1999). Changes in agricultural policy also helped Vietnam become the world’s third largest rice exporter by 1992, a dramatic change from its status as a rice importer in the 1980s.

These policy changes that continued in the 1990s had a significant social impact on the younger generation. With rising living standards, poverty alleviation, and a general move towards political inclusion, Vietnam’s economic development led to a cultural shift towards individuality and mobility. As Elisabeth Pond (2014) describes in her article ‘Vietnam’s Second Revolution’, the under-30s during this period were:

“…the first in their families to have chosen their own marriage partners rather than accepting a union arranged by parents. They are the first generation to adopt the custom of bringing the toilet from the outhouse into the middle of the home…the first to play a set of tennis before reporting for work in the morning; and the first to eat meals sitting on chairs at raised tables…they are the first generation in five millennia to have known only peace in their lifetime.”

In the long-term, these changes have given Vietnam a reputation of being one of the most organized societies in Southeast Asia (see Pecotich & Shultz, 2016) and one of the most progressive on social issues, such as gay rights. A United Nations Development and USAID report in 2014 highlighted that from 2012, there had been positive media exposure, support from public and governmental organisations, and increasing activism and community events around LGBTQ issues. This approach has been quite different to Vietnam’s neighbours such as Singapore, where the legal system is upholding the law prohibiting same-sex activities, as well as Brunei whose penal code punishes same-sex couples with whipping and long prison sentences (Clayfield, 2015).

However, although the Communist Party of Vietnam has been putting LGBT issues on the agenda for public consultation by legalising same-sex marriage in 2015, many Vietnamese consider homosexuals and members of the gay community as deviants, sinners, and moral transgressors (HIWC, 2018). The discrimination and bullying experienced by those from the gay community reveal that homosexuality is still taboo in a society that remains influenced by Buddhist and Confucian traditions. In their study on ‘homonegativity’ (the adoption and acceptance of homophobic attitudes, beliefs, or actions) and Confucianism, Nguyen and Angelique (2017) found that the patriarchal and collectivist aspects of Confucian tradition, which gives the concept of family loyalty and obedience a central role in defining one’s self-worth and community acceptance (see Analects 1.2, 7.36, and 11.5), has meant that people from the gay community often internalise homonegativity. Rejection by family and friends, failure to take part in education and job programs because of harassment, and exclusion from being seen as a deviant or mentally ill often results in self-esteem issues, feelings of shame, and unhealthy coping habits, including alcohol and drug abuse.

When discussing a power-relationship that involves a dominant and subordinate party, Frantz Fanon spoke about how the colonizer is able to internalise colonialism, which makes colonised peoples internalise the idea of their inferiority as they ultimately come to emulate their oppressors (Fanon, 1967; Mayblin, 2016). The process involves the coloniser inscribing the colonised subject with ideas of backwardness and lack of empathy, dehumanising the other to such an extent that “it turns him into an animal” (Fanon, 1963, p. 42). In her chapter on perceiving the body as inhuman, Dr. Sophie Oliver (2011) writes that symbolic humiliation, such as head shaving or verbal abuse, and loss of personal and public autonomy when one is viewed as an ‘other’, often leads victims to feel as if they no longer belonged to the human community.

While Fanon and Oliver’s theory was directed towards racism, torture, and physical suffering, Nguyen and Angelique’s study reveal that internalised feelings of otherness also occur in minority groups and individuals who do not conform to conventional social expectations. To conduct their research to determine whether a high level of exposure to Confucianism in early life is related to one’s level of internalised homonegativity, 351 people who met the age criteria (18-28) were asked to complete surveys that measured homophobia/transphobia, self-esteem, and Confucian values. Overall, their study found that the strong influence of Confucianism in Vietnamese society, as measured by values of filial piety, strict gender roles, and communalism, was positively related to internalised homonegativity for young people. The authors note that “placing one’s family honor above one’s own authenticity, prioritising parents’ wishes, and granting parents power in decision-making around marriage…provide a fertile background for internalised homonegativity to thrive, despite an otherwise changing culture associated with Đổi Mới” (p. 1626). The pressure to maintain a positive reputation and family image along with the fear of disappointing their parents means that LGBT individuals often operate underground and remain invisible in the public sphere.

Although this study was limited to younger LGBT people and did not account for other influences on internalized homonegativity, including education, class, and location, the results are supported by previous studies on internalized homonegativity and Confucian/collectivist values. For example, Feng et al. (2012) showed that in Vietnam a high endorsement of traditional family structures and gender roles were predictors of negative perceptions of homosexuality. Likewise, Nguyen and Blum (2014) revealed that sexual conservatism was a likely contributor to homosexual intolerance. In a more extensive, qualitative study, Horton and Rydstrom (2011) noted that there were high expectations associated with the role of the son in a typical Vietnamese family that are communicated and reinforced in daily interaction, starting with referring to newborn sons as thang cu (“penis boy”). Such names run counter to ideas of non-heterosexuality, which could threaten the family’s status and the son’s power and success.

In that case, despite making progress on gay rights, Vietnamese society continues to grapple with expectation and reality, between the old and the new. While most of Vietnam remains organised on strong family values and principles of hierarchy and obedience, non-religious, inclusive, and urban aspects are emerging as sexual and gender minorities become more socially visible with the help of organisations and events that support and advocate for LGBT rights. It remains to be seen how conservative traditions such as Confucianism can evolve to deal with these issues in order to remain socially relevant for generations to come.